Just Fix It Wisconsin

Tom Diehl: Transportation — and road conditions — key to Wisconsin’s vibrant tourism industry 6/22/2016

6/22/2016, La Crosse Tribune – Tourism is one of the three major economic pillars that drive our state’s economy, along with agriculture and manufacturing. Tourism brings in tax dollars from visitors from around the globe while also providing our citizens with quality vacation, recreation and entertainment options.

Now that summer has officially begun, visitors will be hitting the highways in earnest to travel to their favorite Wisconsin destinations. Tourism generates $19.3 billion in business sales and supports more than 190,000 direct and indirect jobs. The $1.5 billion in state and local taxes generated by tourist spending in Wisconsin each year lightens the average household tax burden by $640 to maintain current levels of services.

Wisconsin’s tourism industry has been on the upswing since it was elevated to a state agency in the mid-1990s. I am proud to have served as chair of the Governor’s Council on Tourism for more than 13 years. There always has been bipartisan agreement that a renewed focus on “Badger State Hospitality” through high-profile marketing is in the state’s long-term interest.

The vast majority of Wisconsin tourists drive to their destinations. That’s why it’s crucial to consider the needs of the tourism industry when developing statewide transportation priorities and funding strategies. We want to create a system that moves our visitors safely, efficiently and with the least amount of stress possible. Wisconsin visitors don’t spend money when they’re stuck in traffic or delayed due to poor road conditions.

My fear is that Wisconsin’s transportation funding problems are beginning to hurt the state’s tourism industry. Big projects like the Zoo Interchange in Milwaukee and Interstate 39/90 from Madison to the state line are facing multi-year delays. Future projects like interstate expansion south of Wisconsin Dells and I-94 in western Wisconsin are decades away from reality because of demands on dwindling transportation revenues.

In order to grow our economy, tax revenues and job opportunities, we need to invest in and build up Wisconsin. If Wisconsin truly is “open for business,” then policymakers and the governor must develop a bipartisan, long-term transportation funding solution. Otherwise, tourists will detour to destinations in other states because of poor road conditions.

There is no denying the transportation needs in our state. A recent report by the national research group TRIP showed that 42 percent of Wisconsin’s major local and state roads are in mediocre to poor condition, meaning they are showing significant signs of deterioration and must be reconstructed. Other recent reports rank Wisconsin’s road conditions as some of the worst in the country.

The governor and legislative leaders appointed a high-level blue ribbon commission to study transportation funding. The nonpartisan Transportation Policy and Finance Commission found that Wisconsin’s transportation fund will fall at least $650 million short every year going forward if nothing is done just to fund the projects that already have been approved.

The choice isn’t that difficult. State policymakers and the governor can either do nothing to address the transportation funding shortfall — and watch our local and state roads continue to deteriorate and previously approved projects face delays — or they can just fix it and watch the quick return on investment in the form of increased economic activity. Let’s hope they make the right choice.

Tom Diehl has been a statewide leader in the tourism industry for more than 40 years. He co-owns Tommy Bartlett Incorporated in Wisconsin Dells with his wife, Margaret.

Note: This piece also ran in the Chippewa Herald, Dunn County News, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Portage Daily Register and other outlets.